The director of ‘A Monster Calls’ and ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’ on how to find the heart of a story and make your mark as a filmmaker.
Successful filmmakers typically begin as movie fans first. This is especially true for J.A. Bayona, who at the age of 17 worked as a film journalist just so he could get into festivals and interview filmmakers in order to learn more about the process. And it worked out for him. During one festival, he met Guillermo del Toro, who saw potential in him and years later ended up assisting Bayona with the production of his feature directorial debut, The Orphanage.
Since then, Bayona has also directed critically acclaimed films such as The Impossible and A Monster Calls; works he considers to be a part of a trilogy in their own unique way alongside The Orphanage. Now he’s entered one of largest franchises of all time to direct Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, for which he not only stepped into the blockbuster realm but also got to work closely with legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
Now that he has lived and learned from his own successes, having worked with indies and major Hollywood films alike, Bayona’s ready to give back the type of mentorship he’s received from filmmakers like del Toro over the years. Below we’ve collected some of his best pieces of advice for anyone hoping to enter the industry.
Love Making Movies
As noted above, Bayona truly loves movies and can’t see himself working in any other field. It’s clear he considers this to be the most vital part of being a filmmaker. In a Reddit AMA in 2017, he gave this advice to a young fan:
“I think you really need to want to do it. It’s such hard work to make a film, so you really need to want to do it. If you have doubts, try it. It’s a very tough job. But if you want to do it, try it non-stop. Because even though it’s very hard, it’s also very rewarding.”
He also gave this advice back in 2016 in an interview with Kamaron Leach, when asked about what he would tell someone hoping to be in his position one day.
“I think if you want to dedicate yourself to do movies, you really need to like it, because it’s such a tough world. For me it’s impossible to separate my life from movies. For me, everything is the same. So if you don’t feel it like that, you shouldn’t try it. But if you feel it like that, you should try it non-stop.”
Watch his full advice below.
Go Beyond the Plot
Whether he’s directing a blockbuster like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or a smaller film like The Impossible, Bayona sees them as the same when it comes to finding the heart of a story. In an interview with The Independent in 2016, he suggested filmmakers dig past a film’s basic premise to understand its true significance.
“It doesn’t matter what the film is about. What is important always is what lies behind the story. So as a filmmaker you need to take out the dinosaur and think about what is lying behind the story, beyond the dinosaurs, beyond the genre. For me the dinosaur is the surface.”
The same year, while promoting A Monster Calls, Bayona spoke about going further in storytelling in an interview with The Verge:
“The idea of storytelling is to transcend, to reveal a truth that feels more real than reality itself. From the moment you start to create a story, that’s the goal. The particularity of this film is that it talks about that directly, but all films are about that…make the story appealing and universal in a way everyone can relate to, so by the end of the film, everyone watching is Conor, everyone is a monster, everyone is a mother. I think this is why it’s so important to keep a mystery. ‘The Orphanage,’ ‘The Impossible,’ and ‘A Monster Calls,’ they each end with a question: what’s the meaning of that last shot? What’s the meaning of that scene? There’s no specific meaning. Everyone has to put their own meaning into the story. And that’s what makes the story eternal. Because it will be different every time you see it. Because there’s a question, and it hasn’t been answered.”
Express the Truth
As a form of visual storytelling, filmmaking is a way to portray the world as it is and show truths that are often hidden. In an interview with /Film in 2017, Bayona explained his thoughts on how filmmakers can be truth tellers.
“What I thought was very interesting was this idea of exploring the storytelling and finding the truth, and express the truth, which is basically what you do as a filmmaker. You get to the set every day, and you try to get the truth out of your actors and put it on the screen in the best way possible.”
He expressed a similar idea in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, where he also discussed the type of bravery involved with creativity.
“At the end I think there’s this idea of the truth and to be brave enough to tell the truth, which is ultimately what we do as filmmakers. We try to find the truth and express it.”
Watch the full video below.
Inspire Your Entire Set Through Music
Adding music to a film can help audiences to connect with a story. That said, Bayona advises using music as a tool not only for audiences but for your cast and crew as well in helping to establish the energy around your film and bring out the strongest performances. He told The Verge in 2016:
“Music is very helpful, not just for the actors, but the whole crew, and myself. It gives you the tone of the scene. Everyone is focused on the tone of the scene when we are shooting, and we are having an emotional reaction to the music immediately. The good thing about helping an actor create a performance is, you really don’t know how you’re going to do it. It’s a challenge every time you get to the set. That keeps the energy flowing all the time. And this film is so technical, I wanted to keep it organic. You do that with the actors. Even in front of a giant head, they’re creating relationships, creating the space between their characters, and that’s fascinating.”
Balance Expectations with the Unexpected
When working on an installment in an existing franchise, there has to be continuity between your film and the previous one. However, as the director of Fallen Kingdom, Bayona found a way to do this while also making his own mark on the film, something he suggests filmmakers in a similar position do as well. He told Cinema Blend in 2017:
“What we’re doing is a sequel to ‘Jurassic World,’ but it’s definitely the fifth chapter of a longer saga. It’s very interesting. It’s always tricky, but you need to find a balance in what people expect to find, and the new stuff you’re bringing to the story. And I think the story is looking for a connection between ‘Jurassic World’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ — more than what ‘Jurassic World’ did.”
At the premiere of Fallen Kingdom in 2018, he also explained his idea of balance to The Upcoming:
“I think the most exciting thing about doing a ‘Jurassic’ is to be able to put the saga a step forward in a very unexpected place. Somehow the movie delivers what people are expecting, what people are waiting to see in a ‘Jurassic’ movie. But there’s also a lot of surprises. Things that the audience doesn’t expect. And I think that keeping that balance, like giving the audience what they want to see but also what they don’t expect. “
Watch the full interview below.
Be Understanding Yet Unaware of Your Audience
As the previous tip addressed, you’ll usually be dealing with audience expectations on some level, but that doesn’t mean you have to alter your entire film for them. In our own interview with Bayona in 2013, he advises filmmakers to place their focus on their own creative vision and refrain from thinking too deeply about how audiences will one day watch it.
“As a director, you never think about how an audience would respond. You can think about that, but you will never change what you’re going to do. You can not control that since you never know what an audience will think. I can consider myself my audience, and I’m not that weird. I’m fortunate in the things that I like, most people like. Also, when you’re working on a movie you’re never aware of what you’re doing is going to be on screen and lots of people are going to watch it. If you’re aware of that, you’ll probably be so scared.”
What We Learned
Eat, breathe, and live movies may sound a little bit like a cliché, but that seems to be a large part of Bayona’s success: a deep, ever-growing love of films that you just can’t shake off. Having an appreciation and a passion for movies and how they are made is an important part of establishing yourself as a filmmaker. Whether you have a mentor, go to film school, or learn by reading interviews and watching other people’s movies, you can begin to craft your own style and storytelling abilities. In learning from others and fostering your passion, you’ll be able to discover what it is you want from yourself as an artist and what you hope to put out into the world with the films you create.